Thursday, November 10, 2011

Tone Deaf

           So, I wanted to talk to you a bit about G.I. Joe.
           Not the cool cartoon, mind you.  Or the toy line.  No, I’m talking about the completely God-awful, live-action movie.  It had problems.  Lots of problems.  Not the least of which was a  complete failure to remember sixth-grade science class.
            The big issue I’d like to address, though, is the weight.
            Doc Brown and his assistant Marty taught us that some things are heavy.  They have weight.  They have, if I may use a literary term (sorry), gravitas—a certain dignity and importance and bearing.
            Stephen King, on the other hand, taught us that some things are soft and squishy and bleed a lot when you shove knives or claws or fangs into them.
            And let’s not forget the Wachowski Brothers, who taught us that some things get shot.  A lot.  In slow motion.  While doing kung-fu.
            What do all these things have in common?  And what do they have to do with weight?
            Well, let’s think about it.  Doc Brown and Marty didn’t think everything was heavy, just a few key revelations that came to them across three movies.  Stephen King doesn’t kill everyone in his stories—all in all characters in his books have a pretty decent survival rate (The Stand notwithstanding).  The Wachowski Brothers might have pioneered “bullet time” and virtual camera array shots in film, but there’s also a lot of stuff in The Matrix that follows basic camera set-ups—master, overs, coverage, done.
            And then there’s the G.I. Joe movie.  Which was cool.  Super cool.  Cool action, cool characters, cool lines of cool dialogue uttered coolly in cool situations.
            Saying cool that many times is kind of lame, isn’t it...?
            Anyway, keeping that in mind, I’d like to perform a simple experiment.  Please pay attention to the next paragraph.  Take notes if you feel it might help you recall things.
            LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA!!!!
            So... what parts of that stood out to you?
            Odds are none of it did.  Well, maybe the fact that it ended.  In fact, you probably skimmed it, didn’t you?  Any sane person would’ve.  It was a bunch of LAs, that’s all.
            Here’s another example, one which will probably drive my point home.  Have you ever heard a tuning fork?  Have you ever felt compelled to listen to one for hours?  Tuning forks are perfect, y’know.  If you have a middle-C tuning fork, it will hit that note and hold it for ages.  Why wouldn’t you want to listen to constant perfection?
            Because it’s boring!
            A tuning fork plays one note.  That’s it.  It’s the musical equivalent of LA LA LA LA LA LA.  Middle C is great, and any musician will tell you it’s invaluable to performing almost any composition, from Ludwig Beethoven to Lady Gaga.  But it isn’t the only note.  It’s important because it’s part of a system of highs and lows that we call music.
            Stories work the same way.  A story that’s just all the same thing is the literary equivalent of a tuning fork.  It’s neat for about a minute and then it starts to wear on your nerves.
            Comical and serious.  Loud and quiet.  Horrific and reassuring.  Thrilling and mundane.  Failure and success.  If you look at any good story, you’ll see that it swings back and forth between extremes in a series of low troughs and high peaks.   
            Yeah, The Matrix had tons of kick-ass visuals and amazing action sequences.  It also had a scene of Neo getting berated by his boss, mocked by an old woman in a kitchen, and a lengthy discussion about the true nature of “Tasty Wheat.”  Some of these scenes were vitally important to the plot.  Others were just interesting character moments.  They all had different weight.
            This is what the creative folks behind G.I. Joe didn’t get.  You can’t have all cool lines and all cool action all the time in a story.  If everything is set to ten, it all has the same weight.  Another way of saying “all the same” is that it’s monotone.  And monotone is boring.  It’s boring whether it’s all set to three or five or ten or eleven.
            Y’see, Timmy, it’s the back-and-forth, up-and-down nature that makes for interesting stories.  A good story has a baseline that the reader can relate to.  It’s going to have pitfalls that sink below that baseline, and maybe some really tragic potential consequences.  And it’s going to have some parts that grab the reader’s attention, shoot high above the line, and make the heart start pumping.
            Because if it doesn’t have these back-and-forth elements, if it’s all the same, then it’s just a line.  It doesn’t matter how high the line is.  It’s just a flat line.
            And I’m sure most of you know what “flat line” is another term for...?
            Next time, I have three things I’d like to talk about.
            Until then, go write.

3 comments:

Pandaninja said...

I have to agree with this post. I saw G.I Joe, and I was completely disappointed with it.

Rancid Potato said...

I agree in some movies there is just too much candy (or uh... the opposite of candy) and not enough inherent drama. I scare myself thinking it's some paradigm shift, that "cool" content trumps the need to set up a story with dramatic tension,(which wouldn't be a story in my opinion). It almost overwhelms the story when there is drama to be had because the audience is waiting for the next wow factor when there hasn't been any build up or let down, breathing space, subplot, counterpoint or anything resembling those. It's no wonder sometimes the only thing we find to discuss are the componets like cool visuals, cool action, twist endings, blatant wrongness, sensationalism or some rarely used trope that manged to make it into the final product (because it was cool)- that's the only ride we were allowed to go on.

With a more balanced story viewers (or readers), would have something much more to identify with, or viscerally reject(within story context), or consider critically like themes, morals and philosophies, what if's, why not's and all those inward reaching evocative (or provocative O.o) things that resonate with us, or used to resonate.

Virtual Stranger said...

Pandaninja, "completely disappointed" is so much more polite than how I usually put it. ;)

Rancid (may I call you Rancid?), I know just what you're talking about. Back when I was writing for Creative Screenwriting I would use the term "Pirates syndrome" to describe any movie (especially a sequel) that felt the need to cram in soooooooo much cool stuff that it became an incoherent and exhausting mess.